Green self-driving cars take center stage at Tokyo auto show

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cars of the Future on Display at Auto Show.

TOKYO (AP) — Visions of cars that drive themselves without emitting a bit of pollution while entertaining passengers with online movies and social media are what’s taking center stage at the Tokyo Motor Show. Nissan unveiled an autonomous electric vehicle that it said would “revolutionise the relationship between car and driver, and future mobility”, while Volkswagen shifted into damage control with another apology for an emissions scandal that has rocked the auto industry. After the initial “traffic jam pilot” features are implemented, Nissan will be adding technology that will allow the car to drive on highways in a way it can autonomously negotiate hazards and change lanes, like the Tesla Model S can. The biennial motor show’s 44th edition, which runs from Oct 28 until Nov 8, features 160 exhibitors from a dozen countries including foreign automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Peugeot Citroen, Porsche and Jaguar.

The IDS concept is a hatch design and will feature the same high-capacity 60 kWh battery pack as the Nissan Leaf, as well as another for long-distance driving range. It starts a week after Honda said it would put a commercialised self-driving car on the road by 2020, as automakers bet on vehicles that can drive and, in some cases, park themselves.

Nissan Motor Co. showed a concept vehicle loaded with laser scanners, a 360 degree camera setup, a radar and computer chips so the car can “think” to deliver autonomous driving. The body of the car will feature extensive uses of carbon-fibre and aerodynamic fins, making the car lighter and be able to travel with less air-resistance, resulting in more electric range. The unwillingness to take a software-testing approach — with beta versions used for trial periods and ongoing updates — and apply this to car-making divides traditional auto companies and tech-industry challengers, said Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto industry analyst with Barclays Plc.

The Japanese automaker called it IDS, which stands for “intelligent driving system.” Nissan, based in Yokohama, Japan, said it will offer some autonomous driving features by the end of next year in Japan. Called the Gripz, the concept was actually inspired by Nissan’s Z series of cars and will be the spiritual successor to the current 370z sports car. The eye-popping vehicle conjures up images of the Terminator films with parts of its underbelly – including fuel tank and hoses – exposed, giving an inside look at the car’s machinery.

Nissan, a leader in electric vehicles, is showing a concept car with knobs and buttons replaced by tablet-style touch screens featuring controls and maps on a white instrument panel. Honda meanwhile is showcasing technology that allows its cars to auto-cruise on congested roads under 65 kilometers per hour, and trace lines on curvy roads over 100 kilometers per hour. Nissan officials said they were working hard to make the car smart enough to recognize the difference between a red traffic light and a tail light, learn how to turn on intersections where white lane indicators might be missing and anticipate from body language when a pedestrian might cross a street.

Toyota and Honda are exhibiting their latest fuel-cell offerings, seen as the holy grail of green cars because they emit nothing but water vapour and can operate on renewable hydrogen gas. The auto giant is hoping to build on the success of its popular gasoline-electric hybrid Prius to sell tens of thousands of the eco-friendly Mirai over the next decade, as it looks to stop producing fossil-fuel based cars altogether by 2050.

Toyota put reporters through test drives this month in a modified Lexus GX sedan that can enter public Tokyo expressways, switch lanes and self-steer onto exit ramps, all while deciding on the spots to slow down or accelerate based on surrounding traffic. The car indicates on its center instrument panel screen and plays an audio message when it wants the driver to take over, and returning to manual mode requires only a grab of the wheel or tap on the brakes. For Volkswagen the show was a chance to start working on regaining customer trust after it admitted fitting 11 million of its vehicles with software designed to cheat official checks. Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk told reporters this month the company can probably develop a completely self-driving car in about three years, while Google has forecast about a five-year time frame. That’s why some automakers at the show are packing the technology into what looks more like a golf cart or scooter than a car, such as Honda Motor Co.’s cubicle-like Wander Stand and Wander Walker scooter.

Instead of trying to venture on freeways and other public roads, these are designed for controlled environments, restricted to shuttling people to pre-determined destinations. Regardless of how zanily futuristic and even dangerous such machines might feel, especially the idea of sharing roads with driverless cars, that era is inevitable simply because artificial intelligence is far better at avoiding accidents than human drivers, said HIS analyst Egil Juliussen. The government is encouraging carmakers and technology firms to test self-driving vehicles on designated public roads and may allow Olympians to take robot taxis to venues. Such technology will offer mobility to people who can’t drive or who don’t have cars, and it can also reduce pollution and global warming by delivering efficient driving, he said.

Other automakers, including General Motors, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Tesla are working on self-driving technology, as are companies outside the industry, such as Google and Uber. With life expectancy rising and births declining, the proportion of Japanese aged 65 or older will swell to 40 percent by 2060 from 24 per cent last year, according to government projections. Traffic accidents involving the elderly are on the rise in Japan, contributing to the industry falling short of meeting a target for fewer than 2,500 road fatalities a year by 2018 set by the National Security Agency.

Automakers envision a future in which cars would work much like smartphones today, to have passengers checking email, watching movies or checking out social media and leaving the driving to the car. Honda Chairman Fumihiko Ike, who is also head of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association which is organizing the show, said the Japanese government was putting tremendous pressure on Japan’s automakers to perfect self-driving features. Japan is eager to showcase such technology in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, such as having driverless cars pick up athletes from airports and taking them to Olympic Village. Unexpected things could happen on roads, like a package falling out of a van, and the human brain has better powers of the imagination than the best artificial intelligence, he said.

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